The title Everything Everywhere All at Once is both accurate and misleading. It’s true that in the latest film by the duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known as Daniels (who previously offered surreal delights with their feature debut, Swiss Army Man) the audience will spend much of the runtime feeling like the protagonist does: overwhelmed by everything, their mind racing everywhere, experiencing this all at once. And while the narrative possibilities are endless with such a conceit, it also misses the forest for the trees to only focus on the enormity of what’s been created here. The film maintains a sharp focus on a fractured family unit, and the tension and resonance it wrings from their relationships are what gives it a beating heart, transcending its cerebral gimmicks to become a true work of art.
The story centers on Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh in a career-best performance), a laundromat owner who feels suffocated by her flailing business and a family she can’t seem to connect with. Her simple but supportive husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, a revelation) is contemplating divorce since he can’t ever seem to get her to talk through their problems. Her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is frustrated by her mother’s difficulty accepting her new girlfriend. Her father (the legendary James Hong) has long since disowned her after she left with Waymond to America, and she clearly still struggles to earn his approval. On top of everything, her laundromat is being audited.
As she spreads years of receipts across the table, attempting to make sense of it all, Evelyn sees all the missed opportunities and alternate paths her life might have taken. Little does she know just how literal those branching possibilities will turn out to be. Right as she’s getting ready to meet with an officious IRS worker (hilariously played by Jamie Lee Curtis), Waymond’s mind is jacked by another version of himself from a reality known as the Alphaverse. He sees the potential of Evelyn’s wasted potential, and informs her that she may be the only hope of combatting a malevolent personality who has been cutting a swath through the multiverse, destroying all in its path.
One of the smartest decisions made by the Daniels (who wrote the film as well as directing) is to spend much of the first act dialed into Evelyn’s relatably mundane home life. The missed connections with her family, her sense that she could have amounted to so much more, it’s all laid bare and detailed beautifully with sharp writing and sharper performances. The struggle of this Chinese-American family to simply get by is made explicitly clear, so that when things do start taking increasingly nonsensical turns, we’re invested in the all-too-human conflicts at the center of it.
And boy, oh boy, do the turns get nonsensical. See, in order to fight the evil that threatens the multiverse, Evelyn must connect with alternate versions of herself in other universes and tap into their unique skills. In order to trigger this, she’ll usually need to do something seemingly random and gross (eating Chapstick and snorting flies are just two examples). At this point, not only can she take advantage of whatever makes these versions unique, but she can get a glimpse of the many other directions her life could have gone to.
These range from an international martial arts actor who bears more than a passing resemblance to Michelle Yeoh herself, to a hibachi chef whose rival harbors a secret that will be familiar to Pixar fans, to a lesbian dealing with domestic troubles in a world where people evolved to have hot dogs for fingers, to a rock with googly eyes. Not only are each of these personalities an opportunity for Yeoh to engage in the kind of fight choreography she’s well known for (as well as some physical comedy she is less known for), but they also provide Evelyn with a chance to engage with aspects of herself she never knew existed. Far from being one-off gags, each of these alternate realities have their own mini-narratives that evolve and resolve over the course of the film.
The whole thing is ridiculous, hilarious, juvenile, heartbreaking, insightful, esoteric, and spectacular, buoyed by some of the most creatively bizarre action scenes you’ll ever see on screen. But it works, thanks to the sincerity brought to it by the filmmakers, and by the staggeringly talented cast that all bring their A-game. It’s hard to believe this is Yeoh’s first lead role in an American film, and she takes the opportunity to showcase everything we know she’s capable of, and everything we don’t. Down-to-earth one moment, hysterical the next, Yeoh delivers a performance that’s both fearless and vulnerable, fully committed to her portrayal of a woman slowly coming to appreciate all that life has given her.
The most welcome surprise comes from Quan, who most viewers will know from his childhood roles in The Goonies and Indiana Jones before he seemingly stepped away from acting (he has spent much of the intervening years as a fight coordinator). The range he is able to display throughout the various versions of Waymond he plays is breathtaking. Sometimes he’s smooth and sophisticated, other times goofy and amiable, other times badass and calculating. Quan carries them all off with the confidence of an old pro, and one genuinely hopes that he starts to get many more roles based on the quality of his work here.
Not to be outdone, Hsu is perhaps the biggest newcomer, and delivers a breakout turn as an increasingly complex character with more than a few layers to parse through. Hong is every bit as wily here as he’s ever been, equally convincing as a doddering grandfather and as a military tactician. And Curtis, bless her heart, is giving 100% to every outlandish thing the script asks of her, whether as a petty office worker or a monstrous cult member. Appearing in small but memorable supporting roles are the likes of Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr. and an uncredited Randy Newman of all people (you won’t see him, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear him).
It would be too easy for a film with this many big ideas to collapse under its own weight, and every now and then it’s possible to lose the thread for a moment. But in keeping the focus on Evelyn’s journey toward reconnecting with her family, and finding a sense of acceptance and purpose in her own life (not just the many lives she could have led), the film always places the emotional stakes front and center, to profound effect. Though deliriously inventive and entertaining, Everything Everywhere All at Once is at its most disarmingly effective when it stops to explore the power of positivity and kindness as a means to combat nihilism and entropy. And in a world where things feel as divided as they ever have, that feels like exactly the kind of message we need right now. The bagels and dildos and raccoons are just part of an especially unique method of delivery.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is now playing in theaters. Don’t miss it.